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Even Oxytocin Can't Save Valentine's Day

Embroideredhearttrans photo: bymanu

I'm still catching up on my Valentine's Day reading. There's always a big push of oxytocin-related news stories.

Brianna Snyder's column in the Fairfield (Connecticut) Weekly recounts her attempt to use Liquid Trust to get a boyfriend. It's one of the funniest things I've read in a long time -- on any topic.

Okay, it might not be to everyone's taste. Here's a sample:

This year I happen to be single on Valentine's Day, which is a little exciting for me. I have been planning this for months.

I bought new socks, some lotion, one of those 1.5 liter bottles of wine (you know, the kind that stains your teeth) and I fanned the take-out menus around me on the floor, eagerly awaiting Feb. 14: the best excuse in the world to get miserably shit-faced, crying at Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and gorging myself on Indian (or Thai, or— fuck it —pizza. Whatever.) and passing out in my own urine, maybe vomit.

And my roommate can't get mad at me. It's Valentine's Day and Snyder doesn't have a boyfriend. "Let her sleep there, peacefully, on the floor in the bathroom," she'll say to her boyfriend who just took her to dinner and is about to get serious pay-off in the bedroom.

If you do think this is funny, read the whole piece: Why Can't I Find a Boy?

How to Sell Yourself

My father was in sales all his life. He's always genuinely liked other people. Now an old codger, it can take forever to go grocery shopping because he talks to everyone. Everyone.

When I go to Trader Joe's, I am a crabby Type-A shopper. "Get out of my way, people, so I can get to those frozen blueberries and get out of here." Not my dad. He reaches out -- literally -- to everyone. And they respond.

I didn't know how it would be to take a slow, forgetful guy in a wheelchair who has a tendency to stop the chair in the middle of the aisle into this scene of avid consumption. Everyone was sweet and accommodating, kindly standing back so he could maneuver, beaming at him as he blundered into things. They stopped to chat with him, often putting a hand on his shoulder or giving him a little pat.

He was so high afterwards. He can't get out much unless I take him, and this trip was the highlight of his week.

In other words, he's a people person. And this high was that highly rewarding combination of dopamine and oxytocin that our brains release during positive social interaction. His oxytocin response is in great shape, even if his legs aren't.

He and I were talking about an interaction he had with the guy who drives the shuttle from the assisted living facility to the hospital, where my mom has been for the past two weeks. This driver was being extra helpful in making sure my dad could get to the hospital.

My father told me how he had chatted up the driver, asking about his family, his job ... getting to know him.

Then he said, "The feeling was real. But at the same time, I was getting him to do what I wanted."

This, in a nutshell, is the essence of sales. There's an oxytocin product you can buy on the internet that supposedly makes people trust you more. You spray it on yourself, they inhale it, the pitch goes, and they're more likely to do what you want. (It's very unlikely this would work: Oxytocin breaks down very quickly, and there wouldn't be enough to get into the other person's nasovomeral organ.)

Some people have expressed fear that oxytocin could be used to make others do things they don't want to, and I always point out that salespeople have been doing this for aeons. My father's story, and his very interesting awareness of how this works, illustrates how the best salespeople create a true connection with others before they start to sell.

Is this manipulative? No, it's human nature.

Wired to Fail

Susanpinker In the UK, psychologist Susan Pinker (right) has a new book coming out -- at least in the UK -- that says women haven't equalled men in pay and prestige in the workplace because we don't want to.

Yes, this will be extremely controversial and she'll be ridiculed by feminists and bloggers of all stripes. But Pinker is talking openly about one of the most perplexing and uncomfortable aspects of the new information from neuroscience on hormones and behavior. In fact, men and women are different.

From her article in the Times Online:

We have come to expect that there should be no real differences between the sexes. But the science that’s emerging upends the notion that male and female are interchangeable, symmetrical or the same. The psychology, neuro-science and economics of people’s choices and behaviour have exploded with amazing findings in the past 10 years alone.

In particular, an opiate-like hormone, oxytocin, which one anthropologist calls “the elixir of contentment” (it surges during breastfeeding, childbirth, sex, cuddling and nurturing), has emerged as a key to understanding Elaine’s decision to impose her own glass ceiling.

According to the article, many women simply reject promotion after a certain level, because their families and relationships are more important to them than their jobs.

I haven't read the book, but I bet Pinker cautions that none of this information pertains to any one individual, male or female. Individuals vary widely in their behavior; some women have more testosterone than some men; some men are more nurturing that some women. Etc.
This is tough stuff -- and stuff a lot of us thought we had put behind us for good. But as we grapple with the mysteries of being human, I think we should accept the discussion, even if we don't, shouldn't and won't accept being told we should be any particular way because of our genders.

I titled this post "Wired to Fail" to be provocative. In fact, we are wired to choose -- and there are many kinds of success that don't involve money.

Could Oxytocin Be Involved in "Off-His-Meds" Violence?

It's been widely reported that Stephen Phillip Kazmierczak, the Northern Illinois University student whose shooting rampage killed five and injured 20, had stopped taking anti-depressants a few weeks before he lost it.

On PsychCentral, psychologist John Grohol examines how likely it is that Kazmierczak -- or anyone else -- might be pushed over the edge of sanity by antidepressant withdrawal.

Antidepressants work by elevating the levels of serotonin available in the brain. Serotonin is a mood stabilizer, and it's assumed that more of it equals better. Grohol cites research showing that most of the fluoxetine (the generic name for Prozac, which the shooter presumably took) is gone from the body within three weeks. Therefore, his brain should have returned to its normal state, instead of pushing him into violence.

But Grohol points out that fluoxetine can influence the levels of other brain chemicals even after it's supposedly passed from the body -- and he uses oxytocin as an example. In a rat study,

During further withdrawal from fluoxetine, there was a gradual increase in the oxytocin response toward control levels. However, even 60 days after discontinuation of fluoxetine, the oxytocin response was still significantly reduced by 26% compared with controls.
Now, oxytocin has been shown to increase empathy and trust in people who inhale it, so it's extremely likely that the oxytocin our hypothalami put out does the same. Oxytocin also acts throughout the body to reduce the stress response.

So, could the lack of oxytocin in Mr. Kazmierczak's system have caused him to be extremely stressed out, unable to manage stressful situations?

Could he also have lost the ability to see other people as like himself, with needs and desires?

Could he have been unable to ask for and accept the consolation and affection from others that helps us overcome pain and loss?

Could all this have combined to make it easy to pull the trigger?

I Missed Valentine's Day!

I mean, I had a very nice two-day celebration with Mike, so I didn't miss it personally. But I did get overwhelmed by the usual spate of oxytocin-related columns and news stories that happened last year and again this week, thanks to oxytocin's newly glamorous identity.

At least six news stories followed the same train of thought:

Attraction and love the result of neurochemicals ... adrenaline, dopamine important for attraction, oxytocin for connection. Etc.

Veronica_hendrix007headshotbwmed Veronica Hendrix (at left) has the most readable version of the theme.  In The Undeniable Reaction to Attraction, she starts with a fun anecdote before examining the triggers that cause this neurochemical chain reaction to begin. She writes,

"The sequence of attraction, according to researchers goes something like this: people are first induced by visual triggers, such as body language or physical attributes, which stimulates their interest; secondly, it’s the resonance of a person’s voice; then finally, the content of what person is actually saying seals the deal."

Here's Your Chance to Try Oxytocin

But only if you live in or near South Carolina.

The Medical University of South Carolina is recruiting subjects for a study that will scan the brains of people, to see what parts of the brain become active after they inhale oxytocin.

The purpose of this research study is to investigate which areas of the brain are active when people inhale oxytocin, a substance normally produced by the body. In the brain, oxytocin is involved in social recognition and bonding, and might be involved in the formation of trust between people.

Participation in this study will require a baseline screening, as well as two subsequent visits one week apart. Each subsequent visit will involve an MRI scan, and should take up to 2-3 hours.

The Nesting Instinct

In a comment, Dave asked me whether I'd found any evidence that doing organizing tasks like cleaning up the house or putting things away can cause an oxytocin release in women.

As he added, it sounds like something a lazy husband wishes were true. (And thanks for acknowledging that, Dave!)

First, let me say emphatically, "No!" I have found no evidence or inklings of this.

Now, let me say, "Er, ummmm .... well ... "

I think I might experience this. I got interested in the oxytocin response because it seemed to explain my own late-blooming ability to love. After many many years of not being able to connect, I seemed to develop this ability over the course of a few years. One huge thing that helped me change, I think, was being called on to assume care of a friend who was very sick and incapacitated. After that, I was able to buy a house and I withdrew from the world a bit.

After being a renter for years and years, I suddenly had my own home. I planted a garden, scrubbed, fixed up. I was working at home as a freelance writer, and I stopped dating, didn't socialize that much. I believe that the couple of years spent truly making a home for myself changed me deeply, and did open me up to love.

And the sick thing is that, as much as I put it off, I do get satisfaction from picking up and cleaning up the house.

Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, in her excellent book, The Oxytocin Factor, talks about the way being in beautiful and soothing surroundings can activate oxytocin's calming effects. And it's well-known that mammals won't go into labor unless they're in a quiet, safe place. (Oxytocin induces the contractions that move the fetus down the birth canal.)

It's certainly possible that a female's (human or not) physiology evolved over time to release oxytocin during a variety of nesting activities.

But guys, that doesn't mean you shouldn't help out, okay? You release oxytocin, too, in response to circumstances. So get on those dishes.

Sexual Monogamy Probably Doesn't Exist

The prairie voles are always touted as paragons of monogamy, ever since Sue Carter at the University of Illinois made headlines by "turning off" pair bonds in females by blocking the effects of oxytocin.

The idea is that in the brains of monogamous animals, including humans, oxytocin and dopamine interact in the brain's reward centers to create what's sometimes described as an addiction to the mate.

But Carter and her early collaborator, Larry Young of Emory University, constantly reiterate that the voles are socially monogamous. In other words, they live in stable families consisting of a mating pair -- that stays mated for life -- and virgin offspring. This doesn't stop them from extra-pair copulation.

I went to a seminar last year in which Young said that a very high percentage of male prairie voles never become monogamous.

Now, new research published in Nature showed that the prairie voles cheat a lot. Lead researcher Alexander Ophir quantified these extra-pair couplings, but found that it didn't have any effect on the vole couples' ability to successfully breed and raise offspring.

Smooch of Oxytocin

Looks like we can add kissing to the list of activities that promote the release of oxytocin. According to a story in that most romantic of publications, Scientific American, Wendy L. Hill and her student Carey A. Wilson of Lafayette College compared the blood levels of cortisol and oxytocin in men and women, before and after they kissed.

They expected oxytocin to go up and cortisol to go down post-liplock. Surprisingly, only the men's oxytocin levels rose. The women's actually got lower. Cortisol levels dropped after kissing in both sexes.

SciAm got their conclusion a little wrong. According to the article, Hill and Wilson hypothesize that women need more than a little kiss to get the love thang going. In fact, the researchers thought that the atmosphere of the lab might be at fault. From the abstract:

... the gender effect on changes in OT suggests that females may require a more intimate atmosphere than males in order to respond positively to a kiss.

It's also possible that blood levels don't accurately reflect the levels in the brain in this case.

Laura's Psychology Blog has all the relevant links.

Try the Middle Ground between Natural and Hospital Birth

Many things about a hospital birth have the potential to rupture or impede the first bonding between mother and child. For example, epidurals and anesthetic do seem to get into the baby's blood stream, so that both mother and baby are groggy and sickish following the birth. Babies delivered without anesthetic are alert and soon naturally begin to look for the breast, stimulating the release of oxytocin in mom and, likely, in baby.

Some think that the steady drip of pitocin, an artificial form of oxytocin, given to the laboring woman can create a sort of allergic reaction, or oversensitivity, in the baby. Later, according to this theory, that child may reject experiences that cause the oxytocin release. Some people think this may be part of the explanation for autism.

In any case, this article from Mother Earth News lays out a middle ground. Sharon Maehl suggests having the baby in the hospital, but staying there for as short a time as possible. She takes you through all the decision points and wraps up with the account of the birth of her second child.

The key to this way of giving birth, along with finding the right doctor and hospital, is making your mind up ahead of time that you won't stay, according to Maehl. She says,

Somewhere along the line you should tell the staff that you'll have to be running along soon (you left a cake in the oven?) Whatever you do, though, don't mention this to anyone in the hospital until the baby is born. If you tell the doctor during your pregnancy, he may even refuse to accept you for pre-natal care. Doctors are not known for their flexibility. Best wait until the baby is born and safely in your arms before you tell anyone your plans.

Her idea minimizes the time in hospital and the pressure from doctors and nurses for medical interventions, while making sure that if anything does go wrong, help is right there.